Last updated: 04:44 PM ET, Mon May 16 2016

Ecuador's Critical Recovery: One on One With Gabriela Sommerfeld

Destination & Tourism | Brian Major | May 16, 2016

Ecuador's Critical Recovery: One on One With Gabriela Sommerfeld

Photo courtesy of Turismo Quito

The magnitude –7.8 earthquake that rocked Ecuador in April killed at least 480 people and injured more than 4,000. The massive natural disaster also elevated tourism’s critical role in the nation’s nascent recovery.

Ecuador is one of several oil- and energy-producing South American nations whose economic fortunes have dimmed recently as world oil prices continue a two-year decline.

The lethal earthquake dramatically increased the country’s fiscal challenges. The government estimates reconstruction costs will be around $3 billion and announced an emergency package to help pay for the reconstruction, according to a Focus Economics report.

Tourism is the nation’s fourth-highest employment generator and a strong contributor to Ecuador’s economy, generating more than $1 billion a year according to Gabriela Sommerfeld, general manager of Quito Turismo, a company of the Municipality of Quito.

Despite causing loss of life, injuries and tremendous damage, the earthquake remarkably left Ecuador’s UNESCO World Heritage city of Quito unscathed. The government is urging travelers to visit the city as a means of aiding the recovery.  We spoke recently with Sommereld to gauge the pace of the recovery.

TravelPulse: How did the earthquake impact Quito's tourism attractions, transportation and infrastructure?

Gabriella Sonnefeld: The most affected areas from the earthquake were those located off the Pacific Coasts of Ecuador, in Manabí and Esmeraldas. Quito was located about 170 miles from the epicenter of the earthquake and remains open with all the services and infrastructure operating normally. Quito’s Historical District, home to some of the most treasured cultural sites in the country, remains intact as well.

PHOTO: The Bosque Nublado outside of Quito is considered an international bird-watching hot spot. (Photo by Brian Major)

TP: What sort of work was done to affect the recovery? What is going on now to bring things back to normal?

GS: Highways and roads were not affected in Quito and the city continues to operate normally. Because Quito is the main entryway for tourists that travel to other parts of Ecuador, like the Galapagos and the Amazon, the city was fortunate that all transportation infrastructure remained intact.

At the moment, access to the coast, particularly to the Manta and Esmeraldas zones, is also operating normally. However, there are some roads that connect coastal communities and neighborhoods that are affected.

The government has been in these affected zones since the earthquake took place and has been working to reconstruct necessary roads in order to get those neighborhoods back to normal as soon as possible.

VIDEO: Mark Murphy on the Streets of Quito

TP: Ecuador launched a new airport in recent years but transportation to and from the facility was an issue. What has been done to reduce traffic?

GS: The airport was inaugurated in 2013 and is located in Parroquia de Tababela, about 45 minutes north of Quito. At the beginning of its operation there were some problems with access but those issues have been resolved.

Today, roads and highways to and from the airport have been improved, and in the cases of some roads that were under construction in 2013, were finalized to improve connectivity to the airport.  Currently there is no heavy congestion or traffic on these roads.

Quito’s old airport, located in the middle of an urban zone in the North of the city, has been converted into Bicentennial Park, an ambitious green project located a few meters from the Convention Center. Once the new Convention Center is up and running, a new Metro station, a top priority for Quito, will be constructed in the park.

TP: What other new hotel and tourism developments are going on in Quito?

GS: The city´s potential has been recognized by several international hotel chains and companies. Such is the case of Accor, which announced the expansion of its operations in the country through the construction of ten new hotels representing an investment of approximately $100 million, starting with their first hotel in Quito.

The new airport has been an anchor for the development of the “Tababela” area, where it is located, managing to attract hotel investments around the project, such as the Wyndham "Great Condor" Hotel that just opened last month, the Holiday Inn Quito Airport Hotel with 130 rooms, Hilton San Patricio Hotel with 130 rooms, the Eurobuilding Hotel with 130 rooms and the Royal Green Apartments and Hotel.

READ MORE: On the ground in Quito, Ecuador

TP: What do you consider Quito's true must-do experiences and activities?

GS: Quito offers experiences for all type sorts of travelers, but some of the most interesting all relate to the history and culture of the city. In Ecuador’s capital, tourists can access cloistered convents where nuns still live in. You can also find incredible colonial treasures like the El Carmen Bajo Convent, home to one of the oldest colonial nativity scenes of the country and the continent.

Another place where visitors can experience culture is La Ronda, where you can find many traditional artisans. In La Ronda, families can have a good time playing traditional games and trying delicious fruit sorbets or “helado de paila” and other elaborate sweets like Colada Morada (a traditional Ecuadorian beverage) and Morocho (a sweet thick Ecuadorian drink).

In the Northeast of the city, you can find the Bosque Nublado (cloud forest) considered a hot-spot for birdwatching. Visitors can also hike or take part in mountain adventures and sports.

TP: Are more North Americans traveling to Quito and Ecuador? Do they travel to the city as part of vacations to the Galapagos?

GS: North America is one of the most important markets for Quito. In 2015, 161,856 tourists from the U.S. visited Quito, representing a 22.9 percent of all arrivals to the destination. In 2015, the total visitor number was 706,848. Most tourists arriving in Quito use it as a starting off point to visit the Amazon and the Galapagos.

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